"Yes we can"

"Yes we can" December 14, 2009

NPR’s All Things Considered had a fascinating story last week on the Tea Party movement, focusing on a recent convention in Dallas — the one time home of the National Indignation Convention, an identical movement during the Kennedy administration.

You can listen to the piece on npr.org or read the entire transcript: “Tea Party Activists Harness Anger to Push Message.” It’s astonishing. NPR is judiciously reserved in its reporting. The story consists primarily of members of the Tea Party movement describing that effort and their reasons for joining it in their own words.

These are not smart people. These are not well-informed people.

And these are very much not good people.

Listen to and read the whole thing and you’ll find countless strange, delusional and self-contradictory claims. I want here to focus on just one of those, from Lorie Medina, described as “an emerging leader of the Dallas Tea Party” and “a 43-year-old, stay-at-home mother from Frisco, Texas” with two young daughters enrolled in the local Christian school.

Lorie is the daughter of a Baptist preacher from Missouri. She went to Baylor, then worked in telecommunications. That was when she met her husband, a retired West Point Army officer. He now runs a small telecom company of his own. Lorie Medina is a lifelong conservative, a Reagan voter and early subscriber to The Weekly Standard. She is thoroughly pro-life, but she says that her work as a Tea Party organizer is focused on a narrower, fiscal conservatism, which she says appeals to many people who disagree on other matters.

After Medina confesses that she finds President Barack Obama particularly infuriating, the reporter asks her why that is, “What is it about him that annoys people so much?” She replies:

You know, it’s like I wake up every morning, and there’s something new on the news that’s upsetting that I read about that he does. I mean, if you said, Lorie, list for me everything that he has done that has upset you since he’s become president, I don’t think there’s any way I could list it all. There’s so much. You know, the fact that he apologizes for our country every time he goes overseas. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him say anything good about America. If you look at the way he speaks, the way you — he talks about our country, if you look at the programs and the things he tries to put into place, it really appears that he does not love our country like most Americans do — and like past presidents do.

The only thing she is actually able to articulate about what sets Obama apart from every other “past president” is the claim that he talks about America in a way that suggests to Medina that “he does not love out country like most Americans do.” This is based on a factual claim that can be easily confirmed or refuted:

“I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him say anything good about America.”

If we were naive enough to believe that folks like Medina base their views on their perception of the evidence, or that they care at all about whether their views can withstand such evidence, then it might be worthwhile to start compiling the massive public record of Barack Obama almost relentlessly saying good things about America.

We could start with that 2004 convention speech

It is that fundamental belief — it is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper — that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: “E pluribus unum,” out of many, one. Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

— and move on through mountains of the same soaring patriotic rhetoric in his two best-selling memoirs and in his stump speeches delivered daily for almost two years. We could point to that astonishing, historic speech in Philadelphia — “A More Perfect Union” — which Medina’s great-grandchildren may one day have to study in class as a shining example of aspirational rhetoric inspired by and inspiring love of country. And we could continue on, to Grant Park, to the pre-inaugural and inaugural addresses and to every public speech or public appearance or TV interview Obama has given since then. And we could build a gigantic tsunami of counter-examples to Medina’s claim, a huge rushing wall of evidence that it would seem impossible to deny.

But all that evidence wouldn’t matter. Evidence is of no consequence to Medina and Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and the rest of the terrified angry mob calling itself a Tea Party because they’re not acting based on evidence, or reason, or reality, or honesty. They’re acting based on fear — blind, howling, maddening, confusing fear.

And anyway we don’t need to replay all the thousands of hours of Obama’s speeches or reread the millions of words he has written or said. We can figure out why Medina is so scared and angry by considering just three of those words, three words that Barack Obama said several times a day, every day, on national television, for nearly all of 2007 and 2008: “Yes we can.”

Twisting that statement into some kind of negative comment to support the claim that Obama “does not love our country like most Americans do — and like [the 43 white] presidents do” is not easy.

“Yes” is, by definition, as positive a statement as one can make. And “can” is almost as irrepressibly optimistic.

That just leaves “we.”

For Medina, Palin, Beck, et. al., “Yes we can” is a negative statement because of the word “we.”

Lorie Medina has never heard Barack Obama say anything good about America because she cannot comprehend that the word “we” could ever be spoken by someone who looks like him in a way that was meant to include someone who looks like her. She cannot conceive that “we” could be used in such an inclusive way because that is not how she uses the term herself — not the way she understands it or is capable of understanding it. When she says “we” she is, emphatically, not including people who look like Barack Obama and so, when she hears him say it, she assumes he must likewise be excluding people who look like her.

And thus that three-word expression of unambiguous love for America sounds instead, in the ears of a Tea Partier, like a threat. To them it sounds like the war cry of outsiders, usurpers determined to shoulder aside people who look like her so they can take over the place to make it a home for people who look like him.

And just to be clear, by “people who look like him” and “people who look like her” above  I do, in fact, mean black and white. And by that, yes, I mean that Lorie Medina and the Dallas Tea Party are a sad little bunch of racists.

Oh, but you’re not allowed to accuse … and that’s rude and uncharitable … and I’m sure some of her best friends … and there’s a handful of black Tea Party memb …

Doesn’t matter. This isn’t an accusation, merely an identification. This thing they’re doing and the attitude that motivates it? There’s a word for that. If they’re not happy to have that word applied to them, then they’ll have to change what they’re about.

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